The Travel Health and Vaccine Specialists

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What is diphtheria?
Diphtheria is an illness that is spread through coughing and sneezing. If an infected person has skin sores, it can also be spread by touching the sores. Symptoms of diphtheria include fever, sore throat, and a thick coat in the throat and nose. Neck swelling and skin sores can also occur. In severe disease, swelling of the heart and nerves can occur, as well as trouble breathing. Death occurs in 5%-10% of cases with breathing problems. People who have diphtheria with skin sores usually recover.

Who is at risk?
Travelers going to developing countries are at highest risk for diphtheria. (See Table 3-01). Industrialized countries have low rates of diphtheria due to the availability of a vaccine that prevents the disease.

What can travelers do to prevent diphtheria?
Get a diphtheria vaccine:

  • In the United States, diphtheria vaccine is only available in combination with other vaccines that protect you against diseases such as tetanus and pertussis. The diphtheria vaccine comes in three forms: Tdap and Td (for adults), and DTaP (for children).
  • Tdap is similar to Td but also contains protection against pertussis. Adolescents 11 through 18 years old (preferably at age 11-12 years) and adults 19 or older should receive a single lifetime dose of Tdap.
  • Td is a tetanus-diphtheria vaccine given to adolescents and adults as a booster shot every 10 years, or sometimes after an exposure.
  • DTaP vaccine is given to children younger than 7.
    • Children should get 5 doses of DTaP, one dose at each of the following ages: 2, 4, 6, and 15-18 months and 4-6 years.
  • See Vaccine Information Statements (VIS) for more information.
    • DTaP VIS
    • Tdap/Td VIS

Practice hygiene and cleanliness:

  • Wash your hands often.
  • If soap and water aren’t available, clean hands with hand sanitizer (containing at least 60% alcohol).
  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. If you need to touch your face, make sure your hands are clean.
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Try to avoid close contact, such as kissing, hugging, or sharing eating utensils or cups with people who are sick.